Let's set the record straight: Since its inception, a single operator has never owned nor managed New York's Coney Island amusement area (unlike most modern-day theme parks). Rather, it has been, and continues to be, a collection of independent owners and vendors. According to owner Carol Albert, Astroland, one of the many attractions at Coney Island, permanently closed its gates last Sunday when Albert was unable to renegotiate a deal with the developer that owns the property on which the park sits. But the rides will still be spinning at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, and a host of other Coney Island amusements and concessions will remain open next season as well.
While taking a well-deserved, post-season vacation this week, Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Deno's, watched in astonishment as a TV news report announced the closure of Coney Island and showed footage of his Wonder Wheel. "They're just not getting the story right," Vourderis laments. "We're not going anywhere. We'll be in Coney Island for many years."
Granted, Astroland comprises a big chunk of the legendary area's amusements, but there will still be plenty of fun awaiting visitors in 2009. The Cyclone roller coaster, which is located in Astroland, is a National Historic Landmark that is protected in perpetuity and will operate next year. In addition to the iconic Ferris wheel (also a protected landmark), Deno's park offers the revered Spook-A-Rama dark ride along with a host of spinning rides for adults and kids. The Hi-Lo Kiddie Park, the El Dorado bumper cars, the Polar Express, and other individually owned and operated attractions will reopen as well. Throw in the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Nathan's Famous, the games of chance, Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball, and a bunch of other diversions, and folks will be escaping to Coney Island next season as they have for years.
Like me, Vourderis isn't entirely convinced that Astroland will necessarily be shipped off into orbit. "I'm hopeful that before the demolition crews arrive, some kind of a deal might be reached," he says. A similar eleventh-hour deal was brokered between Albert and landowner Thor Equities, the developer that has grandiose plans to remake Coney Island, before the start of the 2008 season. The Albert family sold its property to Thor for a reported $30 million two years ago. "It's in everyone's best interests for Astroland to reopen," adds Vourderis.
Even if Astroland does leave, it's likely that Thor would bring in a carnival operator or other amusements to the area. Casual visitors might not notice much difference. Despite its longevity, the circa-1962 Astroland has never been the “grand dame” that some try to portray it. It is a ragtag collection of mostly portable carnival rides.
There's no denying that Coney Island bears little resemblance to its high-flying heyday in the early 20th century. However, amid the aging midways and rickety boardwalk, there is an elegant patina of decay and a palpable sense of Americana. The neon signs at Nathan's and the Cyclone fairly ooze nostalgia.
Developers, the City of New York, community leaders, and others have competing visions and are at an impasse about ways to bring change to the struggling area and reclaim Coney Island's glory. One thing upon which they all agree, however, is that something needs to be done. "I welcome change," Vourderis says. "But we need responsible development. The amusements need to stay."
To learn more about the history of Coney Island, the changes proposed for the amusement area, and the current state of affairs, read my Coney Island overview.